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Fleen Book Corner: American Born Chinese

I don’t know much about Gene Yang. I know that he’s done some kickass comics (both print and online); I know that he’s married and has a child; I know that he teaches high school.

I know that however old he is, he’s way too young to have produced American Born Chinese; this is the sort of work usually appears as the capstone of a long and illustrious career. It’s simply too well-structured, too surprising, too deep, too honest to be the work of a young man. Of course, judging from available evidence, Yang is a young man, which just means that he must have a self-awareness beyond his years.

I thought I knew what I was getting in this book, since I’d read the story a page at a time on Modern Tales, and have had the mini-comics for more than a year; I didn’t know that Yang had added more than a third to the story, and what looked like three separate explorations of Chinese identity was in fact one tightly-unified tale.

And that story structure is part of what makes ABC so good. Starting from separate points, the three different storylines spiral around and tighten up, eventually merging into a coherent whole. On the one hand, we have the story of Jin, a young boy trying to fit into his white suburb; racism (both casual and overt) and ignorance drive him to try to be more like those around him, and less like the even newer kid who’s FOB (fresh off the boat) from Taiwan. It’s not quite autobiographical, and not quite fictional; it is deeply personal and affecting.

On the other hand, there’s the tale of the Monkey King, traditional hero of the classic Journey to the West; he’s powerful, arrogant, stubborn, and has some comeuppance in his future. I’ve read parts of Journey to the West (joyless translations, put together by scholars who want you to be sure you know How Important All This Is), but Yang’s version is the first that really came alive for me. This seems like the bedtime stories that mothers would tell their children, and it’s wonderful news that Yang has started a cartoon journal for the Monkey King, filling in more of his adventures. With any luck, there will be a lot of these forthcoming, and a collected volume.

On the other other hand, we have Everyone Ruvs Chin-Kee, a super econo-size bundle of poisonous stereotypes packaged as sitcom. Danny doesn’t even know how Chin-Kee is his cousin; he’s an average white kid in an average ‘burb, and if there’s any Chinese heritage in the guy, it’s a couple of generations back. But every year, this buck-toothed, pony-tailed, Confucious-quoting, R-and-L switching, kung-fu fighting (with special moves like Kung Pao Attack!, House Special Kick In Nards!, and Pimp Srap Hunan Style!) cliche comes to visit and ruins Danny’s life (with accompanying laugh track). Where Chin-Kee comes from (and more importantly, why) is what finally ties together the three threads of the story, which ends on a note of perhaps-redemption for all involved.

That feeling of redemption is pretty important, as Yang has imbued the entire story with elements of his Roman Catholic faith. I doubt the first chroniclers of the Monkey King imagined their hero and his compatriots filling the role of the Three Magi, but every generation adapts cultural touchstones for its own purposes. Sometimes it’s a dismal undertaking, but in this case, it works surprisingly well.

Lark Pien provided the colors, and they’re beautiful; from the red of the character chops that introduce each chapter, to the sickly yellow of Chin-Kee’s skin, to the deep lacquer colors of some of the traditional elements (an abacus here, a godly emissary there), the colors perfectly suit the story.

Read ABC. Then read it again, seeing how the pieces fit together. Then go get Yang’s other comics and read them, too. This is the work of a master storyteller, and you owe yourself the pleasure of reading it.

I remember how much I enjoyed that when it was on Modern Tales – but like many strips, lost track of it when it left. I’ll definitely have to get a copy of that and see how all the elements come together!

Thanks, Gary. I just ordered my copy on Amazon. I never had to deal with much ignorance myself, as an Asian-American growing up in as diverse a place as NYC, but you can’t help but see plenty of racism (as you say, both casual and overt) among the diversity around you. I can’t wait to read Gene’s book.

Also, we Asians look notoriously young – you can’t go by just that photo of Gene. I’m gettin’ up there in the years myself, but I still get “so what’s your major?” a lot at the frat parties I attend.

Also also, sorry I missed you guys at the McCloud signing. Had a conflict.

Wait, there’s age requirements for creating comics now? Shit!

Gary, the “other-other hand” is the GRIPPING hand.

[…] Fleen’s Gary Tyrell is the latest critic to be impressed by Gene Yang’s forthcoming American Born Chinese. […]

[…] American Born Chinese nominated for National Book Award October 11th, 2006 Posted By: Joey Manley The book collection of American Born Chinese (one of the original Modern Tales strips) by Gene Yang has been nominated for the National Book Award in the category of “Young People’s Literature.â€? This is a very big deal. It’s probably the most prestigious American literary award. When I was in creative writing school, anyway, everybody I knew (teachers and students alike) all paid a lot more attention to the National Book Award than, for example, the Pulitzer. Congrats, Gene! Good luck!” […]

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